It’s the morning of the West End press night of a new Grease production Dame Arlene Phillips has choreographed, and she can feel a burning sensation down the back of one of her legs. But the unstoppable 78-year-old isn’t nursing a dance injury – she’s recovering from a frightening first brush with Covid that floored her for nine days earlier this month.
“I was very, very sick, I was very unwell,” says Arlene. “I’m not someone who gets ill but I was sick for nine days and I’m finding it difficult trying to get into shape again. It’s like everything has left – all my sense of being and strength have floated away from me, but the oddest things remain, including the back of one of my legs, which feels as if it’s been burnt. It’s been a huge shock.”
Speaking to Arlene, you wouldn’t know it. The dancer has a work rate that would put most 20-somethings to shame. Alongside choreographing the West End’s Grease The Musical, she is directing The Cher Show, with Oti Mabuse choreographing. It’s hard to believe she’ll turn 80 next year – something she remains fearless about.
“I’ve got fat cheeks, which I hated, but they’ve served me well,” she says. “I have a bit of filler too, but I’m not a knife person. There are times I want to start at my feet and keep going up to my head, and every so often I go, ‘Oh my gosh, yes,’ but I know in my heart I can’t face it.”
LORNA ROACH PHOTOGRAPHY)
Arlene’s busy workload marks the end of a traumatic two-year lockdown that brought the theatre industry to its knees.
“Lockdown was a real shock to my system,” says Arlene. “I didn’t know what to do with the endless days. Living with that fear, everything that I brought into the house I washed and sprayed.
Anybody touching anything, I cleaned and cleaned and cleaned again. I was living with a form of OCD, and I was very slow to lose the fear. I still don’t feel out of the woods now.”
Brought up in Prestwich, Greater Manchester, Arlene was three when she started dancing. At 15, her life was torn apart when her mother died, aged 43, having had leukaemia, but the loss made her more determined to succeed.
In her twenties, she moved to London and crossed paths with Hollywood director Ridley Scott, who hired her as his babysitter. He saw her capabilities and catapulted her dance career.
In 1974 she founded dance group Hot Gossip, which turned her into a household name.
In 1984, she choreographed Starlight Express, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on roller skates that became one of the longest-running shows in the West End, and had her first meeting with the Queen.
“The Queen came to the opening night but there have been many meetings,” says Arlene. “I’m one of those lucky people who got an OBE and a CBE all presented to me by the Queen. She’s a real role model for women – working so hard, and it is work. There are many days where her numerous handshakes must have been exhausting, standing on her feet, always with this beautiful warm gaze, whoever she’s speaking to. I’ll always remember her gaze, and her skin – she’s got the most perfect skin. I just stare at her.”
Earlier this year, Arlene became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and collected her damehood for services to dance and charity.
“I was at home sitting at my kitchen table when my PA produced a letter,” she recalls. “I was in complete shock. It’s just a bit special. I received a certificate, a beautiful broach and a medal – they’re all downstairs in the cupboard at the moment, just sitting there.”
Of course, Arlene’s career hasn’t always been smooth sailing. In 2009, aged 64, she was dropped from Strictly Come Dancing ’s first judging panel amid rumours that the BBC felt she was too old. She was replaced by Alesha Dixon, 35 years her junior. To this day, Arlene has never had an explanation.
“I gave myself 48 hours to kick, scream, cry and sob, and eat scones with cream and jam, then I made myself wake up and get on with it,” she says. “I reflect and think, ‘Wow, I really didn’t ask the questions I needed to ask.’ I was very fragile because I had a bereavement the day before [her manager died]. I wanted to know in detail and I wanted to know the real reason at the point when they decided for me to go, yet they kept me hanging on for so long with the possibility that there would be five judges.”
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Arlene faced her Strictly rejection with her trademark dignity and has been flying the flag for older women on prime-time TV ever since. She recently guest-starred as a judge on ITV show Dancing On Ice following her appearance on I’m A Celebrity in 2021, where ex-Strictly star Oti, 31, is a judge.
Now working together on The Cher Show, the pair have proved they’re a formidable force.
“It’s so easy working with Oti,” says Arlene. “Although, I did have to shout at her one day because of her craziness! She was miming to Cher and we had to get on with the work and I had to say, ‘OK now, enough Oti! You can be Cher another time but right now you need to get back to work.’ I was quite bossy with her!”
Arlene, who has two daughters – Abigail, with partner Angus Ion, and Alana from a previous relationship – is a cheerleader for those she holds dear, and she is quick to praise Peter Andre, who stars in Grease The Musical.
Last week, the singer found himself dragged into the Wagatha Christie court drama when jibes made by Rebekah Vardy about his manhood in an old interview were unearthed.
“Peter just gets on with it,” says Arlene. “There’s a sense of him owning everything about himself and facing up to it – even if he’s being criticised. I cannot speak more highly of him. He’s a joy to work with, he’s remarkable and his warmth affects everyone.”
She then gets choked with emotion as she reflects on former Grease leading man Tom Parker, who died in March aged 33 after a battle with brain cancer. The pair worked together on the musical in 2017.
“My gosh, he made me laugh and smile,” she says, her voice breaking. “He’s so lovable. He was the first to say, ‘I can’t really dance,’ but he worked like I couldn’t believe and it turned out to be one of the best Danny creations ever. He smashed it. Young people with cancer is so terrible. Your kids are not supposed to die.”
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